My struggles with depression are well documented. The darker days are behind me (for now) but I’ll never forget the daily anxiety and panic attacks, my inability to leave the house nor the moment my sanctuary became a part of my torture and I had the first of several severe panic attacks sitting in my bedroom.
The attacks had always happened outside the house. In enclosed spaces. By enclosed spaces I mean train carriages, buses and overcast days when it felt like the clouds where sitting just above my head and with the slightest provocation could descend and suffocate me where I stood.
They were dark days for sure. I was unemployed, having blown up what I thought I was my last chance to have a meaningful job just weeks before. I was broke, putting on weight at a record level as I sucked down whatever food I could find. Food was a way to feel alive, yet it all tasted like ash. I was trapped.
It was the sense of being trapped, both inside my own head and in a hell I couldn’t escape from. I remember trying to force myself to go and visit a friend for lunch in Chatswood. The train I was waiting for was cancelled. The bus never turned up to get me to Woy Woy. I was constantly arguing inside my own head that I needed to get to Chatswood, I had to get there, I couldn’t let anyone down.
In the process I triggered a panic attack of magnificent proportions. It started, as they always do, by feeling as if I was running out of air. It followed with sweat bursting out of my skin and the world became slightly hazy.
My throat seemed to close up and the world around me began to spin. As I sat on the grass by the side of the road, I closed my eyes and tried to squash it; to tell myself I was being stupid. It didn’t help. It made it worse.
I eventually made my way home, spoke to my friend on the phone (she was fine with it by the way, me not being able to make it) and when I hung up the phone, sitting under my house drenched in sweat and barely recovered I began to verbally abuse myself for being a failure.
I didn’t sleep that night, and the following day was supposed to go to Gosford for an appointment with my Centrelink approved Job Agency. The trip to Gosford on the train was only about 5 minutes long. It was doable, barely. I could usually stave off the attack because I knew I was only trapped for a few minutes.
Having showered, dressed and had my coffee I was sitting on the bed waiting to leave when another panic attack washed over me. I couldn’t believe it. I was in my home!
My bedroom was my safe zone. I always felt protected there in the past but the panic attack didn’t care it was about to tear away from me the one space in the world I had left where I felt safe, felt secure.
By the time the panic attack subsided I was washed out. I cancelled the appointment (I think I told the guy my laundry flooded) and passed out in a heap. A week later my friends son was having his 1st birthday. There was track work, and I’d have to get to Sydney on a 2 hour bus trip. The thought of it was enough to trigger another panic attack.
Needless to say, I didn’t go to O’s first birthday despite the offer of friends to pick me up and drive down me down there.
By then the news of the panic attacks was leaking out to my group of friends. I’d begun to talk about them publicly on Facebook. I thought if I made them public they’d go away. I thought it would ‘make me better’. It didn’t.
That Saturday, as I sat at home feeling an all new level of absolute guilt and furious rage at myself for being weak I was looking for something, anything to take my mind off it. To take my mind away from the fact I had started to fear stepping outside my front door. To take away the minute by minute brain-talk that told me I was useless, or wondered if I was okay.
I couldn’t concentrate to read. I couldn’t concentrate to watch TV. I couldn’t close my bedroom door because it sounded like a coffin closing. I began to realise I had to something or I was going to end up in the middle of a full blown nervous breakdown.
As I made the decision to go to the doctors, to swallow my pride and ask for help, I found a pair of my Mother’s old knitting needles in a tin stuffed in the bottom of the linen closet. I also came across a ball of fluffy pink baby wool.
I took my new treasures downstairs and tried to remember how to cast on.
Mum had taught me to knit the basics when I was a little kid. I can still remember her telling me that I was in too much of hurry and had to be patient and pay attention. I used to get bored – still do – if I concentrated on one thing for too long and the first pieces I put together as a kid had more holes from dropped stitches than actual wool.
I remember as a kid deciding if I couldn’t do it right, the first time, it was a waste of time. An attitude I’ve carried with me my whole life, into everything I do.
Curled up on my bed, feeling sorry for myself; feeling absolutely alone and scared I’d be afraid of leaving my house for the rest of my life I cast on a handful of stitches and tried to remember what to do. Mt first effort was crap. So I turned to Youtube and found about a Zillion and One tutorials and videos on knitting. From the very basics to the most advanced techniques.
Over a couple of months I knitted a beanie. It was a kids hat and I made it for young O whose first birthday I had missed. It wasn’t anything grand, and it was a slightly odd shape but I was super proud of that squishy little hat in multicoloured yarn.
The Reject Shop became a must stop on my fortnightly trip to Woy Woy. They had balls of yarn for $1 each. I wasn’t planning on investing in anything expensive. I bought all sorts of colours; red, black, white, purple and blue; pink, blue and white; green, yellow, red and black. It may not have been the best quality but that didn’t matter.
Over time I started to watch the tutorials and try out new stitches. One day, not long after I had visited the doctor and obtained a prescription for anti-depressants, I was sitting in my bedroom when a panic attack flooded my system. No reason. It just did. One minute I was fine, the next I was bathed in sweat, didn’t believe I was actually breathing, my vision going on wonky.
Without thought I reached for that slightly squishy and misshapen beanie and the pattern. As I struggled to calm to myself down, fought against the knowledge that by fighting the attack I was making it worse, I started to knit.
Knit 2, Purl 2, Knit 2, Purl 2, Knit 2, Purl 2.
And in a minute or so I forgot the panic attack. I was lost in the rhythm of the stitches. I was lost in the rhythm of moving the yarn to the front to purl and to the back to knit. I let go of everything but the flow of the yarn between my fingers, the click and clack of the needles as they rubbed against each other as I moved a stitch from one side to the other.
I realised about an hour later, I’d lost the thread of the panic attack (the unconscious, automatic fight response) replacing it with slowly growing fabric hanging from a tortoiseshell needle my Mother had owned since before I could remember.
Over time I stopped knitting. I found a job, I tried to pick up the threads of the story I was writing when the depression and anxiety attacks overwhelmed me. I watched all 10 seasons of Supernatural (a massive effort of focus on my part that took almost a year) and I got on with life.
I took the wins where I found them; going on a downward escalator without thinking, sitting in a different seat on the train every day, catching a bus. All pretty basic really and not something most people would notice, but trust me; when you go for months unable to catch a bus for 15 minutes without having to get off somewhere to breath, it’s a win.
A couple of months ago, as the routine became slightly choking I picked up the needles and yarn again. I easily fell back into the rhythm. I started posting snippets of what I was doing on my Instagram account, I started to talk about it on Facebook. To be honest, I was unsure at first. It didn’t seem like the most manly thing to do. To be fair, I’m hardly the most masculine gay guy out there but still; why give people something else to poke fun at you with.
But surprisingly I found so many guys on my Facebook who were knitters, or who did crotchet or cross stitch. It was eye-opening. It was a way to connect to other people and to discuss problems or get advice. And I realised, without that first ball of wool and those slightly warped needles I would have never have had the experience of beating an anxiety attack.
Prior to that day, I had no choice but to ride it out. Fight against it. Scream in my head and struggle and let it happen. That day when I pinched my Mother’s knitting needles and a ball of wool, when I decided to ignore the panic attack and try and figure out what the hell I was doing, that day taught me I wasn’t a victim to the anxiety or the panic attacks.
It taught me how to distract a mind in turmoil. It taught me I could ignore the reactions of my brain and body and if I did, if I didn’t feed the attack my fear or terror it really didn’t last long at all.
Would I have stumbled across that without needles and yarn. Probably. Eventually. But the needles and yarn earned my respect and gave me back my sanctuary. I haven’t had a panic attack in my home since. That could be the medication to be fair, but the brain links to things in ways I don’t understand.
My brain has linked knitting to being peaceful, to removing stress, to not drinking alcohol. It has given me the ability to realise that panic attack or not, I will keep breathing, keep moving forward.
And it’s helped me to meet a lot of really nice people online. Plus, I enjoy it and frankly, if you find something you enjoy and it hurts no one else, keep enjoying it.